County Supervisor Adam Hill received support from some community leaders after complaining about a political group’s use of a white performer to impersonate President Barack Obama, according to emails released Tuesday under a California Public Records Act request.
Mike Winn, a Nipomo Community Services District board member, emailed Hill to say, “I appreciate your standing up against racism in all its forms. This is a problem worldwide, but it has not been eradicated in our country — and certainly not in our county.”
Winn was just one of several residents who wrote to Hill after an email from the supervisor to state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, became public. Blakeslee had scheduled a fundraiser at which Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition for Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB), was to serve as master of ceremonies. Hill’s email criticized COLAB.
In another tie to Caldwell, Blakeslee’s family financial planning business, Blakeslee & Blakeslee, advertises on Caldwell’s radio show.
After Hill’s email to Blakeslee became public, an enraged Caldwell asked for Hill’s emails regarding the group, as did The Tribune. In addition to the community support, the emails show:
Several unflattering, even vilifying comments about COLAB, Caldwell and the group’s new director of governmental affairs, Mike Brown.
A preoccupation with COLAB, manifested in Hill’s attempts to get local leaders to distance themselves from the business organization.
An attention to Blakeslee’s voting record and political patterns.
Comments from the senator’s wife, Kara Blakeslee, criticizing COLAB member and county Parks Commissioner Deanne Gonzales for her remarks minimizing the nuclear disaster at Fukushima and alluding to “the Jap authorities” — wording that Hill sarcastically called a “sensitive phrase.”
The emails are the latest revelations in a political brouhaha that popped into the public eye when Hill, a Democrat, criticized Blakeslee for scheduling the fundraiser with Caldwell as emcee.
Using a broad verbal brush for which he would later apologize, Hill called some of COLAB’s leaders and members, although not the rank and file, “hostile, secretive and racist.”
An indignant Caldwell and Brown called for an apology. Hill backed away from what he called the strident tone of his remarks, but not from the content.
Hill noted that COLAB had used professional impersonator Steve Bridges at an event in Santa Barbara County. Bridges imitates many political figures, including former Presidents George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. To impersonate Obama, the white comedian darkens his skin, among other techniques, including a study of Obama’s mannerisms.
To some, the darkened skin is just a professional actor using makeup. But to others, including Hill, it evokes the nation’s sinister racial past, when white performers used exaggerated makeup, speech and mannerisms to demean African-Americans in what were known as minstrel or blackface shows.
The emails show community support for Hill’s perspective.
Winn wrote that “the smug assumptions of COLAB about working people of color are offensive, though admittedly they are hard to pin down.
“The party of Abraham Lincoln (my party of registration) needs to rid itself of that segment with contempt for the poor and a sense of entitlement for the wealthy,” Winn wrote.
Others took a similar tack. However, the emails and the discussion were not just about the impersonation. Hill also alluded to some of COLAB’s other history and argued that Blakeslee would be “pandering to hate-mongers” if he went ahead with the fundraiser.
In examining those remarks and through interviews and research, The Tribune has learned that COLAB has had a history of tactics in Santa Barbara County that have drawn criticism. For example:
COLAB took out an ad — written by Caldwell — during a Santa Barbara County election that carried the headline “IGNORANT MEXICAN ACTIVISTS?”
Caldwell criticized Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, as giving aid to pedophiles because she supported a federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The emails also show that Hill has gone out of his way to draw negative attention to COLAB.
In March, for example, Hill sent an article critical of COLAB that had appeared in the New Times weekly newspaper to Jerry Bunin, governmental affairs director of the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast.
“I hope that the awful, negative publicity that COLAB has been getting of late ... will make you consider whether you want to have ANYTHING to do with Caldwell, Brown and their group,” Hill wrote.
Bunin emailed back that his organization had “discussed ‘the blackface’ comedian. We all agreed it is inappropriate and unacceptable, and we will not be attending or supporting the COLAB April 30 event.”
“That’s good to hear,” Hill wrote back. “I knew that a learned, well-read person like yourself would understand the obvious offensiveness of ‘black-face’ entertainment, and I am glad your members agree that it is in very poor taste and not to be supported.”
Another time, Hill mass-emailed a KSBY television story that was critical of Brown and his retirement package when he stepped down as Santa Barbara County’s chief administrative officer.
“As COLAB’s new representative comes almost weekly to complain about and criticize what our county is and is not doing, I thought it would be useful for you to see this article below from KSBY which gives but a small glimpse into Mr. Brown’s recent past. It’s useful to know what one can about highly-paid advocates that appear before our Board of Supervisors,” Hill wrote.
The exchange involving Hill, Gonzales and Kara Blakeslee is one of the strongest in the collection of emails.
It followed an email in which Gonzales wrote that she was “very disturbed by the efforts to stop the re-licensing procedure for Diablo (Canyon nuclear power plant), which aims at nothing less than doing away with the plant by exploiting the anti-nuclear hysteria after Fukushima. And it is very disturbing to see (Sam) Blakeslee fall for it.”
Gonzales went on to explain her reasoning, but she made the allusion to “Jap authorities” — a racial slur from World War II.
In this exchange, Hill was complimenting Sam Blakeslee, who, like the county Board of Supervisors, was seeking to ensure the safety of Diablo Canyon.
“Heads up,” Hill wrote to Blakeslee, “Your local friends on the far right are taking their licks at you.”
After the emails were released, Hill said he has finished fighting publicly with COLAB. He repeated that his goals have been to “bump (Blakeslee) back toward the middle” and to urge COLAB members, if not its leaders, “to be more cooperative and less flame-throwing.”
He told The Tribune Tuesday that he believes Blakeslee, who cultivates a public image as a moderate, has taken a rightward turn. Hill said the COLAB situation underscored that perceived drift.